Flatline finishing and production keeps this home office furniture manufacturer's plant humming.

BY LARRY ADAMS

The home office has emerged as one of the strongest trends for the furniture industry during the past decade, especially for manufacturers of ready-to-assemble furniture.

One company that is riding the work-at-home boom is d-Scan Inc. of South Boston, VA. The privately-owned, international company -- a sister company, Kingfurn, in Indonesia employs 700 in the production of solid teak garden furniture and components -- introduced its first home office product, a ready-to-assemble desk, in 1991. The desk remains one of d-Scan's biggest sellers.

"I think the growth of the home office market is a big reason for our growth," said d-Scan President David Nelson. "We have grown some 300 percent since the introduction of our first home office product six years ago."

d-Scan's plant is a reflection of this growth. Established 11 years ago to produce teak bookcases, the facility is currently undergoing an expansion which will add 70,000 square feet of manufacturing and warehouse space to its current 135,000 square feet. Filling this additional space will be an automated UV finishing line -- the company's second -- as well as a second feed-through production line and a revamped packaging and distribution area.

In addition to modular, RTA home office furniture, the company's 150 Virginia-based production workers also produce library wall units, bookcases, entertainment centers, multi-purpose carts and contemporary and teen bedroom sets under the Dan Wood collection moniker. Sold through specialty, office and Scandinavian-furniture-design retailers, d-Scan offers a variety of accessories within its standardized line of products, such as raised panel or glass doors, decorative mouldings, light kits and ladder kits. Curved shapes for its inside and outside corner unit bookcases, are also available. The furniture features hardwood veneers in teak, oak, maple or cherry. A white melamine finished product is also available. The furniture is constructed using a 32mm pattern that incorporates cams and wood dowel assembly. The majority of d-Scan's product is shipped flat, ready-to-assemble by the consumer.

"We can customize a product to fit the customer's lifestyle," Nelson said. "While we are getting more requests for additional bells and whistles on our products, the basics are still our most popular. This is good because we want to stay pretty focused on what we do well and that is our veneered flatline products," Nelson said.

Veneer Yield, Not Speed, is Paramount

While much of the company's manufacturing scheme is built around automated flat-line production, the veneering department is a more labor-intensive environment. Here, speed is less important than yield. Little veneer is ever wasted; an average of 90 percent of the veneer is utilized and the remaining scrap is burned for energy to power the veneer press or to heat the building in the winter.

"We have to maximize our veneer because of its value," Nelson said. "This is a very labor-intensive part of our operation, but it is the yield out of the flitch that is important."

All of d-Scan's veneered products use thicknesses more commonly found in Europe than in the United States. Typically, domestic veneers run about 1/32 inch; d-Scan uses veneers with thicknesses ranging from 0.5mm to 0.55mm, or about 1/50 of an inch, Nelson said. "It is 40 percent less thick and therefore you get higher yields out of every log," said Nelson. "The product is still very durable when you put the veneer on the wood and then coat it."

d-Scan receives weekly deliveries of veneer from International Veneers of South Hill, VA. "We don't attempt to grain match," Nelson said. "We like the natural beauty and variances of wood. If you want it to look all the same, you can buy plastic or paper. With wood, there is warmth and life."

The company veneers components as small as 1 square foot for use as drawer fronts or trim pieces. Pieces of veneer that are too small even for use on these types of parts, are flush trimmed using a recently purchased laser-guided Josting double-knife guillotine, from Stiles Machinery, as well as an older Savi guillotine. These smaller pieces are stitched into larger face veneers. To add strength to these larger face veneer "quilts," a stitch is made, width-wise, across both ends of the veneer sheet to increase its durability.

The individual pieces of veneer are stitched together using any one of the company's three Kuper stitchers, purchased concurrently with the guillotine from Stiles. A roller pulls the veneer pieces together while PVA glue thread is stitched into place. Hot air melts the thread, bonding the pieces together to create a practically seamless veneer face.

Three operators, working side-by-side at a Sennerskov veneer press, lay up the veneer onto particleboard, which has been cut-to-size on a computerized, rear-loading Gabbiani panel saw from Tekna Advanced Technologies. For bonding the veneer to the substrate, the company uses crosslinking PVA adhesives, which are applied by a Sennerskov glue applicator. "We have gone away from urea-formaldehyde adhesives. This eliminates the formaldehyde in our glue, and we feel it is better for our operators," Nelson said.

Veneer press cycle times vary depending on the thickness of the substrate. One item, a shelf, took 43 seconds to bond the veneer to the 55-pound particleboard. The company uses particleboard, delivered daily by Masonite or Georgia-Pacific, because it is a very stable product. Board stability is important, "because it could be six months or more before our product is put together," Nelson said.

Flatline Finishing

While the veneering operation is labor-intensive, much of the rest of the plant is highly-automated, including the 215-foot-long finishing line that runs at 35 feet per minute. By the time a veneered workpiece has traversed the system, it will have received four coats of high-solids coatings and water-based stains which will have been cured in an ultra-violet dryer. The company made the switch to a combination of high solids and water-based finishes in 1992 to reduce VOC emissions. "There are no VOCs emitted because there were never any there in the first place," Nelson said.

The switch to high-solid finishes and water-based stains, sealers and topcoats came relatively quickly and easily, at a cost of around $50,000, Nelson said. In 90 days, the company went from initial testing to shipping finished product. Part of the cost of switching to water-based coatings went toward reconfiguring the finishing line to include additional UV drying stations to make sure the water-based products are completely dry before the next coating is applied. "If you don't get the water-based stain dry before you apply additional UV coatings you will have problems with the coloring," Nelson said. "Also, if you do not get it dry, it will track color all through the line."

A second problem was discovered while staining red oak veneer. The water would produce a grain raise that, after finishing, caused a "flicking off" of the finishing material, leaving specks and spots where the sander pulled off the raised fibers from the veneer surface, exposing the particleboard beneath. "It required a period of experimentation," Nelson said. "(The problem was solved) through a combination of improved sanding (capabilities), improved materials and the pressure on the rollers. We discovered this was a little bit of an art."

Some of the improved sanding capabilities were derived from the use of a new Heesemann LSM 8 four-head widebelt sander, available from IMA-European Woodworking Machinery, situated at the front of the line, that uses segmented platen technology. "It doesn't sand through our very fine veneers," Nelson said.

The pieces are automatically fed through a Sorbini double brush rollcoater from Stiles Machinery. Here, a "tie" coat is applied -- a solvent-based coating -- which, Nelson said, "acts as a binding agent between the UV coats." Originally, this step was added to minimize the oil in teak veneer which affects the finish quality. "We now use it on all of our veneers to improve our finish," Nelson added.

As the board makes its way down the line, a UV sealer is applied. Here, transfer efficiency is very high, and any of the finishing material that is not transferred to the board goes back into a bucket and is used again.

This coat is then cured by passing through Superfici UV ovens from IMA-European. It is not the heat that dries the coating, but the light that molecularly bonds the coating to the part, Nelson said. After travelling through similarly enclosed coating application and UV-curing stages, the workpiece is lacquer sanded by a second Heesemann. "When it comes out of the finishing system you can put it in the box and ship it," Nelson said.

Flatline Panel Processing

The 150-foot-long, high-speed panel processing line installed in 1993 shares the finishing department's flat-line production concept.

Production starts with an operator moving stacks of parts over a roller conveyor system onto a Bargstedt panel feeder from Stiles Machinery. The material handling piece of equipment feeds the panels through two Homag double-sided combination edgebander/ double-end tenoners, also from Stiles. Here, the veneered pieces are trimmed-to-size, sanded and banded on two sides. They are then turned on a Homag panel turner and fed through two more Homag machines which will cut-to-size, trim and edgeband the remaining two sides.

For parts that need to be bored, stacks of parts are manually moved to a Biesse boring line that features RBO material-handling equipment and a computerized boring machine which drills holes for shelving and construction holes for the cam locks, the consumer uses to assemble the furniture.

Softer Side of Life

While flatline production is one key to the company's success, the marketplace is more and more requesting furniture that cannot be done in a typical flat-line style of production. Many consumers are looking for "softer, curved, and more user-friendly products," Nelson said. "To remain competitive we have to offer these rounded edges."

To help expedite the machining of these curved parts, the company recently purchased two Weeke BP-15 machining centers from Stiles Machinery, to go along with a Busellato machining center from Delmac Machinery Group. The multi-task Weeke can vertical bore using 22 individually selectable spindles, horizontal bore with five individually selectable spindles, route vertically and has an X/Y-axis grooving saw. They run in a Windows environment, so d-Scan can "simply type in a part number, place the workpiece on the table and the machine does the work," Nelson said.

This year's purchase of the machining centers is part of d-Scan's $5 million capital investment plan for the plant. This type of investment is necessary in a shrinking world. "We are competing in a world market, and European companies will go to extreme lengths to automate," Nelson said. "There (Europe), the product will go into a box without anyone touching it. The only way to compete with that is to stay on the leading edge of technology."

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